Backing Beck

July 2, 2015

One of the strongest growth areas of map collecting is London transport, and in particular the diagrammatic maps designed for London Underground by Harry Beck (1902-1974).

Cartographically-speaking, they were revolutionary.  Prior to the Beck diagram, the various underground lines were superimposed geographically over a simplified road map.

I bought one of his handy pocket-sized tri-fold designs, published in 1959, from Jonathan Potter Ltd recently. It is I believe the penultimate Beck-designed tube map (correct me if you know better).

1959 Beck Underground map

1959 Beck Underground map

The first issue of Beck’s iconic map, still so familiar and upon which the current map is still based, was published in January 1933.  The ‘electrical circuit’ design dispensed with conventions of scale, accurate bearing and all surface landmarks – apart from the dear old River Thames, whose sinous, stylized curves flow through the lower portion.

2nd edition of the Beck Underground folding pocket map issued in February 1933. Special version for the opening of the stations at Southgate and Enfield West. Sold recently for £900 at auction.

2nd edition of the Beck pocket map issued February 1933. Special version for the opening of Southgate and Enfield West stations. Sold recently for £900 at auction.

Beck’s freelance updates were ignored by London Underground after 1960 – sparking a bitter legal tussle. Indeed, his 29-page personal scrapbook, which came up for auction in June, includes a rejection letter from London Transport.

Personal scrapbook of Harry Beck, sold recently at auction for £5,000

Personal scrapbook of Harry Beck, sold recently at auction for £5,000

The various editions of Beck’s map not only chart the expanding, ever-developing city that is London.  They reflect the changing priorities of Londoners and tourists, and the evolving stylistic tastes of pre- and post-war Britain.

My advice: next time you visit a collectors fair or flea market, ferret right down to the bottom of that box of maps.

A trip to a hotel in rural Warwickshire last week to attend a NAVA one-day course on auctioneering.

A career change?  No, just hoping to gain some insight into how the other side operate.

NAVAWe all love a good story in this trade, and we students heard a few of those. But I think overall it was a useful experience. The course leaders, Nigel J. Hodson of Peter Francis, Carmarthen, and Robert Stones of Peter Wilson in Nantwich are experienced auctioneers and methodical and revealing on best practise in securing consignments, preparing for sales, and rostrum etiquette.

They are both of a generation that remembers mutual antagonism between auctioneers and antiques dealers, in part due to the notorious dealers’ “rings” which used to operate fairly brazenly in and around the salerooms.

Thankfully much of that antipathy has dispersed as both the wholesale and retail branches of the trade have recognised the merits of co-operation and knowledge-sharing.  Though there were a couple of side-swipes at dealers playing hardball in negotiations.

I was pleased to see Mr. Hodson heartily concur on an issue that is a particular bugbear of mine. When an auctioneer calls “my commission bidder is out” or “I’m all done on the books” – as he or she tries to squeeze one more bid from the room – it is patently unfair to that absentee bidder, and therefore bad practice.


Yet I see this happen on TV programmes fairly commonly, from supposedly respected professionals. It is frustrating as I myself often leave bids with an auctioneer before a sale if I can’t be there in person. An auctioneer’s primary obligation is to the vendor, but for confidence in the profession and in the integrity of the sale process all participants must have fair and equal opportunity.

The now regular exposure to a worldwide web audience via live bidding platforms can only help to encourage transparency. You might think that visiting TV cameras would have the same effect?  In my opinion the special consideration afforded to ‘TV lots’ (0% commissions, no reserves etc) – plus the editor’s cut inevitably distorting reality – give the viewer a false impression.  (TV publicity for the antiques trade discussed in an earlier post:

On that subject of TV, I noted that not all TV shows were welcomed equally by our speakers. Apparently that is to do with certain presenters, who shall remain nameless…